Drawing a blank
Isobel Hunter had a five pound note and a handful of change to get through the rest of the week and it was only Tuesday. It seemed that she might pay the rent and the essential bills on what she managed to earn but eating appeared to be an optional extra. The meagre contents of her purse were all she had to buy food with, having worked out her average earnings for a week of sketching, deducted the rent and so on, put aside a sum to pay for materials, what remained was the money she had left. Out of that money had to come everything else she might need, including food.
Her stomach rumbled like a distant aircraft taking off and she tried to remember when she’d had more than a few mouthfuls of food. Day before yesterday, she thought. It didn’t help that her chosen pitch was right next to a restaurant with tables set out in the sunshine. The aroma of food wafting over was distracting at best, maddening at worst. What worried her most was that she had mostly stopped feeling hungry at all. Oh there was the gnawing ache that nagged much of the time, but the usual anticipatory delight about eating was gone. Food had become fuel and scarce fuel at that. Maybe she’d have done better to have risked going to Paris and trying her luck round Montmartre.
At least it was warm. The thought of sitting here in the bitter cold made her shudder. She could imagine huddling up under her ex-army greatcoat, ten sizes too big for her, with about six jumpers and wearing fingerless gloves while her hands tried to hold charcoal or pencils.
Well, if things didn’t pick up by late October, then she’d go home, cut off the mouse-coloured dreads her mother loathed so much, die a slow death by respectability and get what her father called, a ‘proper job’. No one could ever say she’d not tried and tried bloody hard at that. Some times the odds were just too stacked against you to have much hope of making it. Right now she thought she would commit grievous bodily harm for a good square meal.
Customers(she refused to even think of them as punters; it went down too many unpleasant avenues of association) seemed thin on the ground today. People loaded with shopping bags hurried past her and avoided eye contact.
‘Maybe I’d do better selling the Big Issue,’ she said aloud, feeling just as ostracised and ignored. If things don’t pick up soon I may not even manage the rent this month, she thought and sighed.
The tall guy with the pony tail was due to come past again soon; every lunchtime, he came past, on his way to the sandwich shop at the end of the road. Every day, he smiled at her and she smiled back. It was the one fixed point of this life that she realised she was looking forward to each day. Feeling a lurch of something that might have been desperation mixed with hunger, she made a snap decision. If she didn’t have a decent meal soon, she was going to be ill. Alert now, and mind made up, she watched carefully so she might spot the tall guy before he saw her; it wasn’t hard as he was a good few inches taller than the majority of the shoppers.
At two minutes past twelve, she saw his distinctive hairline appearing above the heads of the mass of shoppers and fixed her eyes on him, rising unconsciously out of her folding chair so that she might better catch his attention when he got close enough. To her surprise she found her heart was pumping much faster and her mouth was dry.
Don’t be so stupid, she told herself sternly. What’s the worst he can do to you? Say no? Well, then, you’ll be no worse off than you are now.
He walked rapidly, but erratically, dodging people awkwardly as if he was loath to bump into people in the crowd and within seconds he was only a few yards away. As if from a mile away, Isobel noticed that his smile began the second he spotted her, standing uneasily by the easel and her chair, her box of materials laid open like a treasure chest.
She swallowed hard and was about to speak when he beat her to it.
“Hello,” he said, and then stopped and looked uncertain, though his smile had just got broader.
“Hello,” said Isobel, her voice suddenly quite husky. “I’m sorry to just stop you like this but….” She swallowed hard and made herself go on. “It’s been a bit of a slow morning, and I’ve had no customers today. I wonder, would you like me to draw you? For a sandwich, that’s all. I just need to have someone to draw and then people come and watch. It gives them something to see and decide.”
“So where does the sandwich come in?” he asked cheerfully.
Isobel went a deep red.
“I haven’t eaten for a couple of days,” she said, not meeting his eyes. This was so shaming.
He stood there, considering, and Isobel continued to flush with embarrassment.
“Just a sec,” he said, pulling out a diary and flicking through it. “Yep, I can do it. Nothing fixed for this afternoon.”
She waited a moment before internally punching the air and saying, “Yes!” in triumph but outwardly she seemed calm.
“Tell you what, though,” he was saying. “I reckon you’d do better on all counts if you had a proper meal over here and then drew me. You grab your easel, I’ll bring the rest.”
Before she knew quite what was happening, he had scooped up her chair under his arm and shut the box and picked that up too and was striding over to the restaurant that had taunted her so often with the glorious odours of food beyond her purse.
“Table for two,” he said to the waiter who came out to meet them. Isobel kept her head bobbed so she didn’t need to meet the eyes of the waiter. “We’ll stay out here in the sunshine.”
Isobel felt slightly dizzy, but she wasn’t sure if it was hunger that was causing it.
“White or red?” the guy was asking her and she stared at him without understanding.
“Wine,” he said kindly. “You can have what you like but it’s a little cheaper to buy a bottle.”
“White,” she said, feeling the sensation of vertigo increase but in a pleasant way. “What do you fancy then? Pencil, charcoal, pastels, pen and ink?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “What do you like doing most?”
Isobel was stumped.
“Painting, actually,” she said. “But that’s not something I can do on the fly. I usually start with sketches and work from there.”
“Then we can start with a sketch,” he said, and then grinned at her. “But after lunch.”
He ordered a bottle of house white and the waiter continued to give Isobel quizzical looks; he was the chap who had seen her sneak a slice of leftover pizza a week or two back and had shouted at her.
“What’ll you have, then?” the ponytail guy asked her, when she’d stared at the menu for five minutes without speaking.
“You order for me,” she said, shyer than she’d ever been in her whole life.
To her surprise his grin became even broader.
“Cool,” he said. “No one has ever asked me to do that before!”
He ordered a starter they could share and then a pizza with just about everything on it and a side salad for each of them.
“We can think about dessert later,” he said.
From the now permanent smile, she guessed he was enjoying himself immensely and despite her anxiety that the waiter might come over and whisper in his ear that she was a vagrant and a thief, she realised that since they’d sat down, her own smile had barely dimmed at all. The waiter started to pour some wine but the ponytail guy held up his hand.
“We can manage that, thanks,” he said and when the waiter disappeared, he commented to Isobel, “I got the impression he was making you uncomfortable.”
Isobel was impressed.
“Well, he yelled at me last week for nicking some food,” she admitted and the guy laughed. “It was only going to go in the bin or be pinched by seagulls, so I figured why not? But obviously it lowers the tone of the establishment having someone like me stealing leftovers.”
“Is it getting that hard for you?” he asked, and she could hear real concern in his voice.
“Sometimes, yes,” she said. “I don’t seem to be able to make above a certain sum each week so the eating bit is kind of optional.”
“How did you come to be here?” he asked. “Sorry, I don’t even know your name. We see each other almost every day and we’ve never spoken. How strange is that? You’re the only person who smiles at me.”
“I’m Isobel,” she said, and then because she couldn’t help it, “Isobel Hunter, starving artist. I even live in a garret, sort of.”
“Mickey Trelawny,” he said. “I’m hesitant to tell you what I do, though.”
She gave him a searching look.
“I can forgive most things,” she said. “Just tell me you’re not an aspiring porn star, that’s all!”
He roared with laughter, throwing back his head and giving in totally to amusement.
“No,” he said, wiping his eyes and taking a generous swig of wine. “I’m a trainee substance abuse worker. It’s pretty grim and I think I may have taken a bit of a wrong turn. So Isobel Hunter, how did you end up here?”
“Simple,” she said. “I did a degree in art, didn’t want to go home and die of boredom while trying to find a job and probably take a PGCE and end up teaching bored teenagers how to draw still life. I figured I’d give it a try. So far so good. Apart from not eating that is. I have friends who went to Paris. I sometimes think I ought to have been a tad more courageous and tried that but hey, if I can rustle up enough money I might still do it.”
“Don’t!” he said, and it startled her how sharp his voice was. “I mean, don’t rush into anything, that’s all.”
“Chance’d be a fine thing,” she said. “I am keeping my head above water, just, but I think I am unlikely to get enough spare to consider getting over to France and trying my luck there.”
“You never know,” he said, and a shiver went through her. “Your luck might change any time. Might even be today.”
Well, at least today I get to eat, she thought, and he seems like a nice guy. A really nice guy. I just hope he isn’t a nutter. Seems sane enough, even if he is having lunch with me.
The starter arrived and Isobel discovered her appetite had merely been suppressed and not gone away at all. She had to rein in her overwhelming desire to stuff herself with the piping hot potato skins and the garlic dip and be at least half way civilised about sharing the food equally. As she stuck an eager fork into the nearest potato her hand brushed his as he did the same and they both froze for a second or two, unable to meet the other’s eyes. Isobel broke the impasse by rapidly dunking her forkful in the dip and transferring it in one swift movement into her mouth.
Mistake. The potato was far too hot, despite its coating of chilled mayonnaise, and she fought not to spit it out as it burnt her tongue and the sides of her mouth. Bugger it, she thought, why did I have to be so greedy?
She grabbed her wine and took a hefty mouthful to try and cool things down. After a second or two, she found she was able to chew without it hurting too much and she forced herself to swallow and get rid of the embarrassingly full mouth. She’d been so pre-occupied with not spitting it out and trying to manage her mistake without being revolting that she hadn’t noticed that Mickey was almost crying with laughter.
“I always do that,” he said when she glared at him. “Forget quite how hot those damn things are. Here, have some more wine.”
He refilled her mysteriously emptied glass.
“My mother would be mortified,” she said, taking a more restrained sip this time.
“Your mother isn’t here,” he said and she made herself meet his eyes and saw nothing there but kindness. “Look, I’d have stuffed myself if I were as hungry as you clearly are, if that makes you feel any better. I’ve never been that hungry in my life.”
“It’s all down to stupid pride,” she said. “If I phoned my dad, he’d send me money. He’d never even think I might actually go hungry. He’d be horrified if he knew for sure how I’m living. But I’m not ready to give up just yet.”
“Good,” he said, firmly. “Come on, let’s get on with these skins before they get cold.”
Isobel ate until she felt she might possible burst, or at the very least burp loudly, and then, the pizza reduced to crumbs, Mickey asked for the dessert menu.
“Please don’t be one of those girls who are always slimming and won’t eat pudding,” he said, with another of those ear-to-ear grins.
“I might be one of those girls who eats far too much and embarrasses everyone by belching the national anthem,” she replied. “But you can relax. Not today. And yes, if they have ice cream, I am up for dessert. It’s an ice creamy sort of day.”
He scanned the menu anxiously.
“There is ice cream but the very boring sort,” he said. “Tell you what, since I am free this afternoon, why don’t we go down to the pier, and have an ice cream down there instead? They have about fifty flavours, including bubble gum and pistachio….”
His eyes held a pleading look and Isobel was reminded of a small boy angling for a treat.
“Sounds good to me,” she said. “I need a bit of a walk to shake things down a bit and make room.”
Mickey paid and they set off, carrying her equipment between them. Sitting on the pier and nibbling at an ice cream that defied gravity with four scoops of pastel coloured sweetness, she sighed. The sunshine on her face was so pleasant, and her worries seemed to have disappeared. She was dimly aware that really, wonderful as it was, she should get back to her pitch and get on with some drawing but somehow she felt so relaxed and happy for the first time in God knew how long that she shoved it to the back of her mind.
The ice cream melted almost as fast as they could eat it and by the time Isobel was crunching down the cone, her fingers were sticky and her face was a mess. Mickey was almost as bad. She scrubbed at her face and hands with a tissue only to have it disintegrate into paper shrapnel and she burst out laughing.
“I can’t thank you enough for a wonderful lunch,” she said. “But now I need to keep my side of the bargain and draw you.”
He made a face at that.
“You can find someone much nicer to draw than me,” he said.
He got to his feet and started to arrange her chair and her easel and box and Isobel watched in astonishment as he flipped open the box and cleared his throat. The pier was crowded with families and young couples and old people still with their coats on against the mild sea breeze.
“Roll up roll up,” he began, his voice taking on the timbre of a circus ringmaster. “World renowned artist Isobel Hunter is here to draw your portrait, a unique record of your beauty and character to treasure forever. First person gets theirs for just five pounds. Who wants their mug immortalised by this talented lady. Only five pounds for the first sitter. You, good lady? Why sit right down and smile that lovely smile….”
He opened the camp stool with a theatrical flourish and the nervously smiling middle aged woman lowered herself onto it and gazed at Isobel. Isobel swallowed hard and smiled her own best smile and switched her professional eyes on.
By the time the sun started to set, and the light became too dim to draw, Isobel had done more portraits than she’d ever done in one day, and had given away a handful of her own little business card (not that it said much beyond a few contact details in case someone wanted to commission her) and she had sharpened her favourite pencil down to a stub. She’d been so engrossed in her work that she had forgotten to be cautious of Mickey and as they walked off the pier, carrying all her clobber between them, she tucked her free arm in his as they strolled through the rapidly diminishing crowds.
“That was some afternoon,” she said. “I don’t think I have ever worked so hard before. They were queuing up. I don’t know how to thank you for your help.”
“I’ll have to think about that,” he said, with laughter in his voice and then said, “You can thank me by letting me buy you dinner. Please. I don’t want today to end, so can we just carry on as if it never will?”
Isobel stopped dead, letting go of his arm. He had that little-boy-pleading look on his face and she found that when she thought about what he’d said, it was pretty much the same as she was feeling.
“If you let me drop this stuff off at home and get cleaned up, then hell, yeah. I’m up for it,” she said.
Later, much later, a little drunk on wine but high on the pleasure of being happy without having to worry, she stood at her door, feeling a chill at the ending of the evening. This was the test, the final test of who this man was, and if he failed it, then it would ruin what had been a virtually perfect day. There was some shuffling of shoes and avoiding of eyes as they stood in sudden silence after having talked all day and all evening.
“I’m not going to kiss you,” he said, breaking the silence. “That’s not to say I don’t want to. But I want to save something for tomorrow, and the day after that. I want to go home and think, I have tomorrow to look forward to.”
She gazed up at him, noticing for the first time how much taller he was than her.
“Then come and call for me tomorrow evening,” she said, feeling breathless.
His face lit up with another of those massive grins.
“I’ll do just that,” he said and before she could weaken and ask him in, he was gone.
It was only as she put her key into the lock that she realised that even with all the drawing she’d done, she’d not drawn his picture at all.
“Oh well,” she said. “Plenty of time for that another day,” and recalled what he’d said at lunch about her luck changing.
She had a strong feeling he might very well have been right.
(For whether or not this first date ever became anything more, you need to read Away With The Fairies)